Friday, October 31, 2008

The Woman That Remembered

The woman stepped across the busy intersection and stepped onto the concrete path that made its way through the tall green trees. There was a chain link fence to her right and the low hum of a motor came from that direction, the actual motor was hidden by bushes and tall grass. Two younger women ran by her, both with tiny headphones attached to their ears, both bobbing their heads up and down in sync with each other, like slim little plastic doll heads that bounced back and forth in a little girl’s hands. The woman looked at them and then at herself, as if to ascertain who she was and who she wasn’t. Her body was certainly thicker than theirs, her white skin was certainly more cracked and wrinkled, her breath was rougher and she would never be able to run like they were running. Not now. The woman was wearing a light blue sports jacket and a pair of old blue jeans. Under the jacket, she had a white T-shirt and around her left arm she held her heavy leather purse close to her body, in an instinctive desire to protect the lost treasures that may be wandering around in the darkness inside. She wore large dark glasses, to avoid the glare of the sun on this warm afternoon, a glare that she once had relished and which now made her cry.
The young women ran around her without turning to look, as if she was nothing other than an obstacle to be avoided and immediately forgotten. She turned to look at them moving away, trying to imagine their thoughts, their secret wishes, their hidden fears, and then she continued walking along the path. The two runners could have been her daughter and a friend, or maybe a niece, or maybe the old friend she had in school before she got married, and maybe back then, they would have both run together, just like the runners, and they would have bobbed their heads together, just like them. She thought of walking here back then, when the trees were shorter and the streets were emptier. It wasn’t so long ago. It couldn’t be.
An old dirty homeless man with a long white beard that reached all the way down to his stomach was leaning against a tree, his feet resting on the side of the concrete path. She stepped around him and shook her head. The man muttered something under his breath and his bloodshot eyes rolled around in his sunburnt face. Back then, there had been nobody like this, certainly not here. Back then, this place had been as pure and clean as the breeze that now caressed her face. She could see her father taking her little hand and leading her up a dirt path to the lake, and she could feel the overwhelming wonder of finding this place in a world that was so vast and strange and confusing. She wondered at her father’s wisdom then. How did he know where to go? How did he know where to take her?
The dirt path had long ago been replaced by a concrete stairway and the tiny hand that her father had held had grown bigger and then stronger and then more wrinkled and then weaker again. She reached the bottom of the stairs and leaned on the metal railing to take a breath. A man in long white shorts and a dark green shirt was walking down towards her. He had black hair, a short thick nose, full dark eyebrows and, like her, he also wore dark glasses. As she examined him from her post at the bottom of the railing, he looked straight ahead and didn’t seem to notice her at all. The man walked right past her as if she was a strange old adornment on a rusty metal railing. She could once again listen to her father telling her to always say hello, to always say good morning, to always kindly greet the strangers who happened to cross her path. Somewhere in the deep well of years that had intervened between then and now, she had learned that this was no longer necessary, that two out of three people would not respond at all, and that the ones that did, only did it out of a sense of awkward obligation and nothing else and their smiles would be forced and their wishes would be fake and that would only hurt. But the impulse still remained within her, and it came up in her now, an eagerness to raise her left hand, to wave it and smile, to say "good afternoon" and then to expect an answer. Instead, she just looked at him walk by and stayed as quiet as the stairway, as quiet as the concrete on which his footsteps echoed as he quickly reached the sidewalk and the street beyond. The customs of her youth and the friendliness of strangers were all gone, as gone as the dirt path, as gone as her father who now rested calmly under the earth where there was nobody to greet in the morning, nobody to smile at during lunch, nobody to kiss softly right before bedtime.
She took a deep breath and stepped onto the stairway and slowly started to make her way up, still holding onto the metal railing carefully, still feeling the hint of dirt under her shoes. How many years had it been since she started walking here? It seemed that every year, the stairway got longer, the steps themselves got taller, her breathing got harsher and her hands grew weaker. She had learned to walk slowly and calmly, to breathe deeply and rest whenever necessary. She had learned to set her anger and sadness aside and simply rest when the pain became too great. And still her heart beat intensely and still she could see the quiet streets, just outside the park, where her husband took her one day to look for a new home. Now she could clearly see that she had picked the little green house on the corner because it was so close to this place, to this dirt path that was now a stairway, to these dark green bushes that crowded around her feet like pleading moans from the moist black earth, to this lake where her father brought her once when she wasn’t expecting it, to this gentle chamber where she could, once again, wonder at the beauty of the green water, of the thick twisted trees that stretched out over the soft little waves, of the flocks of pigeons that swirled around her as she took the same steps she had taken, once, twice and a thousand times again.
Once on the main concrete path, she got her first look at the lake, as calm as ever, as peaceful and surprising as it was that first morning when her father first showed it to her. The breeze was stronger here, but still soft enough that it reminded her of her baby daughter’s face pressing up against her own. A little girl walked by her just then, lead by a short man in a buttoned up shirt and brown pants. The little girl wore thick glasses and she peeked curiously at the ducks that danced around the edge of the water. The woman knew that the little girl could be her daughter, so long ago, when they had first come here together, when she had first shown her the ducks that had danced back then just like they danced now, and the boats, and the mountain that stood at the heart of the lake. The little girl could also be herself and as herself she would look up and stare at an older woman looking down at her with peering eyes, a strange apparition that was beyond the reach of questions. As a little girl with glasses, she would look away, and the little girl did look away, maybe distracted by a new wave of pigeons in the sky, maybe wanting to avoid her own eyes meeting her across the dark gulf of time.
The woman walked on, trying to maintain a steady pace but unable to continue walking when she first saw the pagoda across the water: the white railing, the red pillars, the green roof. Then, she could almost feel the hands of her boyfriend on her hips as he pushed her up against one of those pillars and kissed her deeply on the lips, all on a quiet morning when there were very few people around and the air was crisp and charged with the distinct taste of possibility. She could almost hear the words of her boyfriend when he knelt before her, in the dirty floor of the same pagoda, on the day when he decided to become her husband and on the day when she said yes. She could almost hear the coughing of her husband as his pale white skin became even whiter on a bed that had become his prison for too many years. Then, she could almost hear the silence when he decided to leave his bed forever and become a photograph on a mantle piece that she would always carefully clean, every morning before breakfast.
Now, the pagoda was her boyfriend who became her husband who became a photograph as much as the lake was her father who had walked her up the path, and as much as the little girl was her daughter who had become a monthly letter and a yearly kiss, and also her, who had become an old woman who walked and thought and remembered. For a moment here, standing on the side of the water, looking at the past that only appeared to be the present, she could let the illusion slide away and she could be back when her skin was smooth and her thoughts were clear and her life was real, as real as a path made of dirt, as real as the hands of a giant who took her to see a lake on a sunny afternoon.
It was for this moment that she came here every day. It was this moment that erased all moments that came before it, like a soft loving breath with the overwhelming force of a tornado. It was this moment that overcame her and left her shaken, looking at the calm gentle waves and the flocks of pigeons and the couples on their little pedal boats and the little girl looking at the sky and the old men leaning forward on the benches. It was this moment that she hoped for. It was this moment that today she got, like loving grace from a hidden fountain of invisible nectar, a generous and unexpected gift from within the well of tears and laughter. It was this moment that she treasured, a golden fleeting moment that vanished as swiftly and unpredictably as it had arrived. It was this moment that meant everything. It was this moment that made her live.
When the moment had passed, she continued to walk slowly along the concrete path. The illusion that was the present had returned and she was feeling tired. But still she would walk all around the little lake and back down the gray stairway. Still she would complete her daily mission. Still she would remember in flashes of light, sound and laughter. Still she would let the sounds of children tell her that it wasn’t the world itself that had grown old and tired, it was only her.
Once she had known that the only true wisdom was the knowledge of this lake and the path that lead to it. Once she had been right. It wasn’t so long ago. It couldn’t be.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

In The News Today

"Can you believe it?"
The newspaper crackled as the man stretched it out between his hands and the light breeze made it swing lightly back and forth. The man was seated on one of the many green wooden benches that stood on the edge of the lake, right by the concrete path that went all around its perimeter. His skin was reddish white and his hair was black with wide patches of white. The man was wearing long light brown shorts and a white shirt. He was also wearing large reading glasses and his blue and gray backpack was resting on the concrete floor, a few inches away from the bench. His legs were bent back so that his feet were pulled back under him. His arms extended outwards and the thin wiry muscles in his forearms were tight and tense.
"I can’t believe they think they can get away with this!"
The breeze blew softly over the calm lake which surrounded a small man-made mountain, a large island in the midst of gentle placid water. The mountain itself was crisscrossed by dirt paths and covered in trees, plants and thick bushes. There were tall water plants growing right by the bench, obscuring half the view of the water. The same tall bright green water plants grew here and there all around the lake. There was a large dead tree trunk that acted as a clear barrier between the bench and the water.
Next to the sitting man, there was a small, slightly thick woman. She was sitting on the bench as well and her body was just a few inches away from his. Where the man’s eyes were pointed down to the thin newspaper, the woman’s eyes were looking out towards the mountain in the middle of the lake. Her eyes were soft and round and they spoke of a hope that still clings to life against recurrent obstacles. Her small hands were pressed together on top of her lap. She was wearing long beige pants, a flowery shirt and a small jacket. Her skin was white, like the man’s, but her hair was blonde and it fell down to the edge of her shoulders. Her forehead was pressed tight, in an attempt to protect her eyes from the sun.
"It’s terrible… after all that has happened… that they would be saying this…"
The man shook his head in disgust and shifted the paper up to continue reading below. The woman nodded and simply said: "Yes, it’s terrible."
"It’s not just that… you know… it goes way beyond… after all…" The man was shaking his head more intensely now, his face becoming a bit more red, tiny droplets of sweat sliding over his temples and under his chin.
"Yes, I know what you mean."
A pink flamingo rested its longs legs on a dead trunk that extended into the water. Every once in a while it would dip its head into the water itself, catching some small insect in its beak. There were a few boats roaming back and forth on the lake surface, wooden row boats and hard plastic pedal boats for couples, slowly making their way around the mountain. Echoing whispers traveled from the boats to the edge of the lake, snatches of conversation, a word here and there, a sudden loud laugh.
"It’s just unbelievable… the things these people would do… you know, it’s just like I’ve always said…"
"Yes, I know."
The woman’s eyes turned up higher towards the edge of the mountain, where there was a colorful pagoda that poked out into the water. The pagoda was round and open, its pillars were deep red and the round stylish fence that surrounded it was white. The round roof was a deep green and it pointed up towards the sky like an old lost antenna. At the very peak of the roof, there was a small green sphere, the green paint only a little faded. Long tree branches extended over the pagoda, half covering it in dark green and brown. A single thin dead trunk was standing up straight out of the water, just a few feet away from the fence. The pagoda was empty now and as her eyes wandered over it, some kids walked by it, on the dirt path that surrounded the mountain. Their thin voices were so loud that their words almost made it all the way across the surface of the lake, only to become isolated syllables and broken bits of song.
"Nothing really changes… it’s just that… you know?… I can see that… but after all this? C’mon! Right? How can they do this? They just have no shame!"
"Yes, I know. It’s very true."
The woman turned to the path momentarily. A woman in a white shirt and long blue shorts was jogging in their direction. She had earplugs on and a hint of music was seeping out from around her ears. Her face was covered in subtle wrinkles and the tanned white skin of her shoulders and neck was covered in shiny sweat. Her eyes were focused on the path and on the effort of running. She passed behind the bench and the sitting woman followed her with her eyes. Then she looked at the lake once again.
"After all, what if it was the other way around? Huh? Would they say that? Would they even dare?"
"No, they wouldn’t," she said, with a slight hesitation.
"You don’t think so? I bet they would! They have no shame!"
"Yes, I think you are right."
A flock of pigeons rose up from behind the tall water plants, spreading outwards to the sky like living pockets of gray and black life released from the breath of a sleeping underwater god. The woman looked up at the birds as they disbanded and she saw how they almost darkened the clear sky for a moment and how the sky reappeared from behind them, outlining their flapping wings, their upturned little heads, their soft feathered bodies. A boy called out to the fleeing pigeons and a man laughed, his voice deep and hoarse. Then the boy laughed too, in light explosions of air and tiny squeaks.
"What can we do? These people can get away with anything!"
"Yes, they can."
The man nodded and turned the page. The man with the deep hoarse voice laughed once again and there was the sound of light feet running on concrete. A man on a bicycle rolled down the concrete path, accompanied by the sound of a little bell. Then there was only the sound of gentle waves caressing the muddy edge of the lake. The woman looked down at the moist leaves of grass that stuck out from the mud, bending back away from the sun.
"See what I mean… now they… can you believe it?"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Love Of Pigeons

The wind was blowing softly through the fragile branches of the deep green bushes and the tender leaves of the tired creaking trees. The water of the lake lapped at the muddy shore like soft kisses bathed in saliva and completed with the loving taste of a moist tongue. There were many little broken twigs on the ground, half covered in the mud, half bathed in the rays of sunlight that made their way through the trees above. Among the twigs, there were many little black worms, twisting back and forth in the ecstasy that was the wet soil. The sounds of laughter and the honking of cars came through intermittently from the concrete path that made its way around the little lake and from the road which was only a few feet away, but seemed much farther. A dead tree extended into the water and a pink flamingo rested its long claws on the wet wood, every so often dipping its beak into the calm waves.
A young male pigeon flew in between the branches, avoiding the obstacles that were the big leaves and the possible danger of the big gray cat that sometimes was hiding in the darkness of the trees. He opened his wings, resisting the momentum that carried him downward, and he landed softly and quietly on the muddy ground next to the shore. A young female pigeon was already there, digging for worms in the mud and flapping her wings slightly as she made her way through the offerings. The young male pigeon stepped close to the female pigeon, pressing his right wing against her slightly. The female pigeon reacted with a slight jump and a quick turn of the head. She looked at the male pigeon with eyes full of curiosity and then the male pigeon did it again, letting his weight rest on her side for a bit longer. She again flapped her wings, this time a little harder and then she slid away from the intruder.
The male pigeon then turned away and moved closer to the shadowed darkness on the edge of the concrete path. He tried to find some worms in the deeper mud that brushed against the concrete, his little head flipping up and down, in a delicate dance that was both sudden death and an urgent desire for life. His wings flipped backwards and he stepped away and dug beneath a twig. The female pigeon raised her delicate little head, her little dark eyes bulging slightly, wondering what had become of the wings that had pressed against her not too long ago. She turned around, away from the shore, and looked for the male pigeon that was still there, digging under a twig. When his eyes came to rest on her, she turned away once again and shivered and let out a quick song that bounced against the thick trunk of the nearest tree and got lost in the rolling waves of the lake.
The male pigeon stepped close to her once again and, while looking towards the emptiness that was the path, let his wing touch hers, as if by accident. She couldn’t help but jump up slightly and she let her body shake deeply and, once again, a sweet song came out of her, rising from the depths of her full round chest and vibrating out towards the trees like a tiny ray of hope bathed in gray and blue shadows. The male pigeon responded with a song of his own and the two songs met in the moist air between them, vibrant sounds lapping at each other like soft little hairs that tremble with the hint of human breathing. The male pigeon was then feeling very bold, and he came to rest right next the female pigeon, so close that the whole side of his body was pressing against hers.
For a moment, they were both quiet and still. In that moment of silence, they could both sense the big change that was then about to come upon them. Even if they lacked a way to describe it, they could feel the change like bolts of electricity that traveled through their soft feathers into their beating hearts. It was then a mix of sharp fear, like the teeth of silver knives, and hopeful emptiness, like soap bubbles that fly away on a lazy afternoon. The change then cradled them like warm loving hands and it lifted them away from the mud, even through their little bodies never left the ground. There was a sudden radiance that bathed the muddy ground in light and then the sound of giant footsteps and then more footsteps and then silence again.
The male pigeon pressed himself again against the female pigeon’s body, but this time she didn’t resist at all and instead, she pressed herself against him as well. The moment of change had passed and it had altered them forever, and its echoes would still be ringing through their feathers, long after the day became night and then day once again. Their bodies trembled together in the burning echoes of its passing.
The water still lapped softly at the muddy shore and the flamingo was still dipping its beak into the waves, but something had changed forever, something had touched the color of the leaves and the sound of the water, something had invaded the substance of the wind itself and made its cool touch a bit warmer. The male pigeon could feel it and he could also feel that his partner felt it too. They let their wings press softly against each other again and they simply shivered in the aftermath of the change, singing songs every so often that twirled in the shadows like many-colored ribbons.
A bit later, other pigeons came and looked for worms in this little secluded spot where the couple still stood, singing and trembling. By then, things were clear and established and, seeing that their little space was no longer theirs, they both flew away, side by side and only a few feet apart. They flew satisfied in the knowledge that, when they came back down to earth, there were wings nearby and, with them, their own wings would tremble once again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Two Women On A Small Boat

It was a fall afternoon that tasted like soft wind and gentle sun. The water of the lake was calm and soft and green, a green that spoke of life and sounded like gentle fingers that dissolve into droplets as they run across your cheek. The trees moved slowly in the wind, creaking slightly as the branches adjusted to their slightly new positions. A mother duck was rounding up her ducklings by the side of the flat, gentle waves of the lake and the dark gray pigeons coalesced into great masses of squawking and then dissolved again, each in its own direction, all with the same hungry purpose. There was an old man sitting on a bench, wearing long white shorts and a red and white shirt. He had a red cap on and his head was turned down towards the sidewalk, his eyes closed. There was a world of curious life around him but he wasn’t interested, not today.
Two women pedaled the small boat they had rented. They were both thick and strong and they both gave off an air of masculinity that contrasted with their full breasts and soft skin. They were both wearing dark glasses and they both looked ahead as they pedaled, as if unable to look at each other, as if unwilling to even try. One of the women was wearing gray shorts and a blue sleeveless T-shirt. Her hair was blonde and her bare shoulders were very white and rounded. Her mouth was half open even when she was quiet, as if she was trying to swallow the world with every breath. As she looked straight ahead, her head was tilted slightly upwards, in a subtle acknowledgement of the sun and the wind. The second woman was wearing long light green pants and a black T-shirt, also sleeveless. She had a checkered hat that covered her short black hair. Her mouth was severely closed and it barely opened, even when she spoke. Her head was also tilted, but instead of facing up towards the sky, she looked down, towards the lake, towards her own legs, towards her pedaling feet.
As they turned the boat slightly, the blonde woman said: "I’m glad you decided to come with me."
"It’s ok. We had to talk anyway," said the woman with the hat, still looking ahead and slightly downward.
"But you could have stayed home… I’m just saying I’m glad… I’m glad that you came with me today."
"Good… like I said, we had to talk anyway."
The words rang like loud whispers over the gentle repeated splashing of the water, the repeated impacts of the boat’s mechanical paddles on the surface of the lake.
"You know that I will forgive you… I always have…" the blonde woman said it with a hint of a shiver in her voice, as if making a clear effort to not let it break, an effort she wished to keep secret but that she couldn’t hide.
"I know that… but it’s not good… it’s not fair." The woman with the hat talked in the lowest voice possible, as if digging inside her chest for a place to bury her words and cover them in great mounds of white flesh.
"I can decide what is fair… you know… what is fair for myself…you…", the blonde woman’s voice was still shaking and the effort was just a bit tougher.
"We’ll see what happens… I don’t want to take advantage of you…"
"I know you don’t… but…"
"We’ll just see…"
A little boy screamed in the distance, happy to see the pigeons erupt into a new round of intense squawking. He ran to them, trying to catch the fast birds in his tiny hands.
"All I’m saying…" the blonde woman tried again.
"Like I said…"
"I’m only saying I’m glad… I’m glad you came with me today… that’s all."
The boat turned slightly again and the two women were very quiet, still looking straight ahead. The blonde woman’s head was still tilted up towards the sky. The woman with the hat was still looking down towards her feet. They would keep on seeing, but as their eyes looked in different directions, they would never be able to see the same thing, their eyes would always be lost in distant parallel lines that never quite meet in the horizon.
The pigeons separated once again in all directions. The little boy wondered if he would ever be able to have one in his little hand. Maybe when he grew older and stronger, maybe one pigeon would come down and rest on his thick older hands and maybe the pigeon would then want to stay forever. For now, the pigeons would keep on flying and the boy would stand by the side of the lake, looking up, with wide eyes and open mouth, as they flew far away from his little hands.
The blonde woman was completely quiet.
The woman with the hat said: "We will see."
The blonde woman barely nodded her head and pedaled a little harder. She kept on being quiet and she kept on looking at the sky. The wind caressed their naked arms and shoulders and the pigeons kept on squawking in the distance. But the women didn’t notice any of it. The wind was just too soft. The pigeons were just too far.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Temple Bar

The wind is blowing icily, causing my trench coat to whip around my bare legs like the wings of startled bats. I shiver as my friend and I stuff three quarters in the meter and start digging for dollar bills. He dips into his wallet. With his face turned down to watch his fingers pull at the paper bills, the crown of his balding head shines like the crest of a well waxed apple hiding a star at its core. My bladder aches all the worse for my shivering, holding the bottom of my coat closed with my hands where there are no more buttons left to fasten. He lays the crisp rectangular papers in my waiting hand and I run to the corner, to a building that I’m too uncomfortable to appreciate or be too curious about. Under the awning blocking the bright red front door with its little glass portal, a woman leans back smoking a cigarette. I look at her and then immediately past her, over her shoulder, at the closed transparent door behind her.
"Is this place open?" I ask her.
Her eyes are small and unfriendly, peering out from under her dark wavy bangs, her mouth has left a red lipstick stain on the end of the half smoked cigarette.
"Yeah." She says it as if she couldn’t care less about the state of this place or any other place for that matter, and I brush hurriedly past her, grieving over the misfortune that leads her to stand in this particular doorstep where I would come to encounter her. The door swings eagerly open as I press against it and I find myself in a very big dark room with several different doors and dark hallways at either end of a luxuriously long bar. I walk sure footed inside, without taking the time to recover from the momentary blindness, as my eyes adjust to the dim atmosphere.
There is a television hung over one end of the bar, but no bartender. Three people sit on their individual stools, two next to each other at one end; a young woman and an old man. The third is alone at the end of the bar. The woman is dressed casually but nicely in gray and blue athletic wear with a healthy dose of black make up adorning her eye lids and her dark hair pulled up in a bun. A slew of cosmopolitan magazines are spread on the bar in front of her. She is reading one, occasionally looking up at the television. The old man is also dressed well, in slacks and a white dress shirt. His hair is white and the creases in his face are new and thick. He glances at me momentarily, revealing his sour faded eyes. Then he looks back to the papers he is holding and proceeds to divide his attention between them and the television.
After a brief hesitation in which I am perplexed by the absence of the bartender, I determine that I will be unable to delve into the mystery of this chamber effectively until after I have found a place to urinate. Either my need to pee is so great, or I have reached a point in my life where I no longer feel that I require anyone’s permission to do anything, maybe now I see the request for permission as just a quaint gesture, like putting little brass rings on the napkins for a dinner party or pulling my left foot back and up as I bow to say hello. I walk into the darkness, as if I know where I’m going , walking in a straight line parallel to the bar towards a blackened hallway. As I pass the end of the bar, I notice the third man. He sits with his laptop open, working on something, the blue light of the LCD screen reflecting off of the lenses of his spectacles while his almond shaped eyes dart here and there watching the data scroll by. As I enter the hallway, I am gratified to find that I have chosen the right direction. The bathroom doors are marked with gold plaques reading "Women" and "Men" respectively.
Hurrying through the door that is marked "Women", I am both surprised and pleased to find that the bathroom is spacious and bright and pleasant smelling. There are 5 stalls, more than I expected, and the walls and floor are clean. I select the largest stall and lay down the thin toilet seat covers after shutting and latching the door behind me. As I urinate, I hold the dollar bills in my hand and think about the unyielding scene in the main room, how perfect it is, how still and quiet, how resistant to any attempt at change or disturbance. Succumbing to the intimidation of this unfamiliar environment is not an option. There is nowhere else nearby where I can complete my mission. As I pull my shorts back up and drop the length of my coat back down, I resolve to get what I want, kick flushing the toilet. I stride out of the restroom and back towards the bar, holding up the two dollar bills.
"Anybody got change for a dollar?" I say it in a loud, clear and confident voice that, for an instant, echoes through the room like an explosion.
They all look up reticently, unhappy to be budged from their private realities. The man at the computer looks up towards me, up towards the roof and back to his computer screen before I can register his movements. The old man barely lifts his thick eyebrows. The woman with the magazines gestures to the woman from outside who is now seated at the bar. The woman with the small and unfriendly eyes, looks back towards me and reluctantly rises from her seat as if her ass is the heaviest object she has ever been asked to lift.
While she opens the register I say, "Actually, I could use two dollars worth."
"Alright." She sounds disappointed and at the same time so resigned to disappointment that it hardly seems to matter. Her mouth barely opens as she speaks that single word. She takes the dollars from me and shells out a fistful of quarters. I accept them and look into her tiny squinting eyes with sincerity.
"Thank you… very much." I speak slowly and with great emphasis on each word. "I… sincerely… appreciate… it." She scarcely nods but her face seems a little softer, as if a tiny whiff of soft wind broke through the ossified barrier of her sour expression. I turn and push back through the red door into a blast of cool air which whips up my coat again, letting me know that the world outside still remains, the vast open world still surrounds the musty and perfect heart of the lonely bar, as much as its inhabitants would like to forget it, as much as they would like to be forever left alone.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Many Layers of Truth and Lies

I walked down McAllister in a mood of gentle openness and curiosity. The sky was bright blue, there was a chilly wind that roamed over my skin and the sun was just starting to break through the clouds. It was about eleven in the morning and I was coming back from my court appointment where my former wife had not even bothered to show up, leaving me with the white angry bull dog face of her attorney and the apologetic round little face of mine. As I walked away from the Civic Center, I talked on the phone for a while and I let my eyes roam over the people that walked beside me: a little group of young students in bright T-shirts and shorts, a beautiful woman across the street in tight jeans and a dark brown sweater, a short black guy with a thick black jacket that stared back at me in anger when I looked at him, a fat homeless woman that told her strange tale in a constant flow of gibberish that trailed off into the wind. I looked southward as I crossed Leavenworth to the medium sized building across the street and I realized that the Church of Scientology was no longer there. I realized that I had seen it many times and I’d had the impulse many times of walking in and posing as an innocent and curious seeker ready to be swallowed up by the waiting jaws of their institutionalized machinery. Now it was gone and I wondered if I would ever figure out where it had moved to. For a moment I imagined that maybe San Francisco had rejected them so profoundly and completely that they had been forced to move away, giving up their elegant building for a two story flat eyesore in the midst of a suburban corporate park. I regretted never having walked in but I shrugged my shoulders and continued walking.
I walked eastward on Market and arrived at Powell. There I could have kept on walking down Market but I decided to turn north and take some pictures of the cable cars and the tourists that mobbed around them. Up the block, I was stopped by two blonde girls in elegant dark clothing. They both smiled at me in the vaguely cold and friendly tones of salesmen and they handed me a flier for the Church of Scientology. I read it carefully: "From L. Ron Hubbard himself – An Introduction to Scientology- the only filmed interview". "Only" was underlined and I remembered a black and white clip I had seen of him talking behind a desk and I wondered if it was the same. I asked one of the blonde girls when the video was showing and she said: "Every hour, for free." And she smiled broadly, clearly pleased with my curiosity. I asked where the place was located and she said about fifteen minutes from where we were, right in front of the Transamerica Building. I smiled and nodded and said thanks and kept on walking. I remembered Vollman’s statement that he couldn’t really understand a writer until he had at least seen a picture of them, a video or film would be even better. There were subtle messages that could only be communicated through the face and the hands and the body, subtle messages that could drastically change the meaning of the cold statements of fact. I continued walking calmly, but moving in the general direction of the Transamerica building.
A short time after noon I arrived at a narrow corner where Columbus Ave met Montgomery at a sharp angle. There, at the tip of the triangular city block, was the new Scientology building, marked by a stylized cross and a strange symbol involving two triangles and a curved "S" shape that resembled a snake. I walked directly inside and saw two young men in white shirts and black pants and very trimmed short hair cuts. They both resembled Mormon missionaries and, as I listened to their last few words before they turned towards me, I realized that they had just walked in from a missionary expedition through the streets of the city. Behind them were two blonde girls, one of them behind a circular desk. All of them were standing and they all looked at me intently as I walked in. I spoke up first: "I got a flier about a film that’s being shown here every hour… a filmed interview with L. Ron Hubbard." The blonde girl behind the desk smiled and said: "Yes! I remember you! Come right in!" I then realized she was the same blonde girl I had met just about twenty minutes earlier by Powell. She extended her hand and said: "I am Audrey." I shook her hand calmly and said: "Hi Audrey, I am Juan." She pointed to her fellow blonde girl, a very thin and young little creature that reminded me of another friend I had once had under similar circumstances, in the entrails of a structure devoted to the search for life beyond structures. "Abby will show you in. Just follow her." I realized that they were all wearing white and black. It wasn’t exactly a uniform because they wore it in different styles and in different combinations, but in a group it clearly showed a semblance of unity.
The inside of the building was a mixture of a corporate bank and an old fashioned church. Along the windows that ran parallel to Columbus avenue there was a sequence of desks, arranged to give the illusion of slight privacy as they were covered by semi circular displays. Each desk had a phone, and office supplies and a comfortable chair on one end facing a couple of smaller chairs on the other. All of the desks were empty. Across from the desks was another set of semi circular displays. Behind those displays was a large meeting room where there were wooden chairs arranged in concentric semi circles. At the heart of the circles was a podium with a sculpture of L. Ron Hubbard upon it and a large cross with arrows crossing at its center, the same symbol that was displayed outside the building. The little blonde girl carefully walked me into a small room with a TV set, a DVD player and a few chairs. "This is from the only full interview that he ever gave. It’s the best way to hear about it, direct from the horse’s mouth, you know? It’s been carefully colorized because it was filmed back in 1967 or 1968… something like that. I will leave you here to watch it and then I will come back so you can fill out a survey to let us know what you thought about it and if you have any questions. Do you want the light on or off?" I asked her to turn it off. Then she closed the door and I was alone with a smiling L. Ron Hubbard.
My first impression was of strength, a man with a lot of experience and ability that was overflowing with confidence in himself. His face was wide and white, his mouth curled downward as he talked and it opened up further than seemed reasonable. It vaguely reminded me of a strange underwater monster that one might encounter in the midst of a colorful dream. His eyes were alive with expressiveness and calculated warmth. After the first wave of pure strength, calculation was the next layer that seemed dominant in his manifestations. Every word was carefully planned for effect. In this complete and masterful calculation he reminded me of a very good salesman or a politician, one that knows what to say, how to say it and when to say it. As he talked more, as he claimed that all he knew he had discovered on his own, as he claimed that there could be no contradiction between Scientology and any other religion, as he said that the only purpose of his organization was to help "able" people to become more "able", I began to notice the layers. There was a very thin layer of communication where he was simply stating the truth as he knew it. There was another layer under that where he was turning on a linguistic fog machine that would obliterate all detail from his speech making sure that nothing could be narrowed down to any kind of specifics. There was yet a third layer where he simply was not telling the truth. Each of these three layers further subdivided and overlapped into each other, constantly moving, constantly shifting, never staying long enough to be locked down into a simple specific statement of fact. As I opened my eyes wider, I saw a trickster avatar in action, a hustler of the highest degree, the kind that once upon a time sold snake oil to unsuspecting farmers in the lost little ghost towns of the American west. But, like I said to my friend a couple of hours later, "just because it’s snake oil, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes work …"
He talked about his quest for knowledge, how he had lived with men of all kinds as he traveled throughout the world, asking himself: "What is man?" How he had come to understand that nobody could give him an answer. He told of how he came to understand that philosophers didn’t have the answer and neither did psychologists. And he saw the answer in spirit. Man was a spirit clothed in a body and a mind. As long as your work with man focused on the body and the mind, it would go nowhere. But if you approached man as a spiritual being, then real progress was possible. Through Scientology, man’s intelligence could be raised, the real intelligence that came from the spirit which only used the mind as a tool. He said that they did not work with insane people. "The insane people are just… well, they are just insane," and as he said it, there was a hint of disgust in his face. He also said that they did not allow people into their organization with "bad backgrounds". The interviewer asked him if good and bad meant the same to Scientologists as they did to the rest of society. He said: "Yes, it’s the same. Exactly the same." He said that it was possible to be a Scientologist while still being part of any other church. He claimed that Scientology unified all religions into the one common purpose of making man be good, and that it clarified that process and accelerated it. All this work would lead to man, individual men, becoming smarter, more able to "deal with the world around them", more able to be "successful", more able to "fulfill their ultimate purpose in life". The interviewer asked what that was and he said: "We have been dropped as spirits onto this planet and it is up to us to figure a way out." To which the interviewer asked: "You say we have been dropped here but what dropped us here?" and he responded: "A Supreme Being… a higher intelligence…" "What other people would call God?" "Sure… what we believe in no way contradicts other religious beliefs."
At one point during the interview he stood up, leaned against the wall with one foot crossed over the other and talked in a more forceful voice. It seemed clear to me that he was voluntarily invoking a different state, a different "god" from the archetypal maelstrom, through a nearly invisible ritual that he knew well and that he had adapted into modern civilized habits so that a sleeping modern man would see it only as a regular man standing up to stretch his legs. In the end, he talked some more about how Scientology could bring about the change that all religions were asking for, that it was not enough to advise man on what to do, he had to be changed through very specific means. He smiled broadly with each statement and his lower lip kept on curving down like a strange kind of big white toad. The DVD ended with a simple written statement that moved up over a moving picture of the Earth floating in space and ended firmly static on the middle of the screen: "Scientology is the fastest growing religion in the world. For one simple reason: It Works." I felt clear and simple sympathy for that statement.
I walked out of the dark little room and looked around the empty space. There was an older Latino man looking at a computerized display down the hall. Otherwise, the whole place seemed to be quiet and alone. I took a quick picture of the church and then the small, thin blonde girl came out of nowhere. She had a clipboard in her hand and she said: "Well? How as it?" I said that it was very good, very informative and that I was glad I had seen it. She asked me to fill out her form and I did so. I responded as honestly and as vaguely as I could to each question. Then I pointed to the display that ran along the little train of desks. "Are those all pictures of him?" She explained that it was a showing of pictures of him and also by him, that he had been an avid photographer most of his life so he had left them with a lot of pictures to document his travels and his very adventurous life. I asked if I could look at the display closely and she invited me to do so. I started with his childhood pictures and even in the earliest of them I could see the same strong eyes, the downward smile, the eagerness for life. In both the vibrancy of his presence and his abilities as a huckster and even in his smooth dismissive arrogance, he reminded me of other teachers I had known, old teachers with a long tail of cosmic dust behind them that lifted them up beyond the ordinary and new teachers just pushing up into their waiting translucent thrones. In his quest there was truth, in his arrival there were lies. The journey that was life always ended with the conclusion that was death. A place like this could then be seen as the propagation of death beyond its single momentary presence. Once he had been a strong fierce skinny boy facing the strange mysteries of the world, travelling through the Far East, through Africa, through the Caribbean, through Europe, all in an endless quest for something that he carried with him all along. Then he came to conclusions, to finished truths and perfected methods, and there he found something to hide, something to protect, something to guard, and the only way to hide it was with lies, and the only way to protect it was with lies and the only way to guard it was with lies. So the many layers of lies protected a kernel of truth, a kernel that may have been a living flower deep in his heart at one time but which might have suffocated a long time ago under the thick blankets of a protective hierarchy.
As I finished looking at the display, another girl I hadn’t seen before came towards me and said: "Don’t leave… Aubrey wanted to talk to you." I assumed it was one of the same girls I had already talked to and I had simply misheard the name. Meanwhile the little blonde girl looked all over the building for a book I had expressed an interest in: a book on Art. She said she created art as well: "Not as a serious profession. But I do like to create, I like to paint, you know?" I said: "Yes, I know." Someone else walked by me, and suddenly there seemed to be at least five or six women of different ages running around, all very aware of me. There was another sequence of displays which I looked at for a moment. These were all about the community work that the church did throughout the world: work with drug addicts, work with criminals, work with entire countries in need of guidance. There was a picture of L. Ron Hubbard handing an African nation the gift of a constitution. There was another picture of a long row of black men auditing each other in a dirty wooden building. Through the many words and images, the colorful displays communicated one clear message: "Look at us. We are good. We do good. Whatever bad things you have heard about us, they are lies. We are good normal people. We are good."
Just as the little blonde girl came back with a thick hardcover book on art and just as I had started to open it, I was called over to a desk by a young brunette. Her demeanor was very corporate, it said to me in unspoken gestures: "You are a potential client. Now I will show you what we can do for you and I will start you on your way into our organization." She introduced herself as Aubrey and shook my hand. Another girl handed her the survey card that I had filled out. She looked at it carefully and smiled at me. I was seated across from her and I was still looking briefly at the thick book on "art". One page said "Message". Another page said "Technique". I looked up at her and smiled and closed the book. Her hair was tied back in a tight little pony tail, her eyes were a little sunken and she was making a distinct effort to hide a bit of anxiousness that coursed through her small body as she dived into her predetermined script.
"So do you have any questions?"
"No, not really. I found the video to be very interesting."
"What is your impression of it?""I see that there is a lot of truth in what he says. I see it as being very similar, at least in principle, to the teachings of Gurdjieff."
"Of who?"
"Gurdjieff. You’ve never heard of him?"
"No," she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders and returned to the sequence as she knew it, "So it says here that you would like to wake up. What do you think prevents you from doing that?"
I smiled and took a breath. I could see L. Ron Hubbard still playing in my mind, I could sense his masterful use of half spoken truths and vague lies. I decided to try the same approach.
"It’s a matter of mastering my thoughts."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I have to be able to control my thoughts."
"Is this something that has been troubling you?"
I laughed slightly. "I think it’s something that troubles all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not."
"What has this prevented you from doing?"
"When left unchecked, it would prevent anyone from being able to fulfill their goals."
"So you are interested in fulfilling goals?""Yes, of course."
"And the problem with your thoughts has prevented you from doing that?"
"As I work more on it, it gets better."
"What do you mean by that?"
I looked at her. I looked at her foot bouncing back and forth as she crossed her right leg over her left. I looked at her eyes as they flew back and forth from me to the other people to the survey note in front of her and then back at me.
"Just like with you right now, you can’t prevent all that movement from happening. It happens unconsciously. It wastes a lot of energy that goes nowhere. It would be the same with my thoughts."
Her eyes opened wide for a moment. Something had gone down the wrong tube, this was not going as planned, but she recovered quickly and returned to her script.
"But specifically, what has this prevented you from doing in your life?"
I grasped at the word "specific". That was exactly what L. Ron Hubbard did not do in his interview, he never talked specifics. In his world, to show specifics was a weakness, it implied vulnerability. This girl had been trained by experts to make her clients vulnerable before she flew in for the close.
"When unchecked, it prevents me from fulfilling my goals."
She asked me a few more questions. As skillfully as I could, I tried to invoke the vague truthfulness of Hubbard with each answer. In doing this, I realized that I had learned something from him, something that was not spoken in language but was communicated through movement, through gesture, through posture, through raw physical invocation and through the shaping of the vibrational quality of the chamber. I cleared my attention and placed it back on her. She invited me to a short course. I said I might be interested in it. She said that it would cost $70 and it was one on one. I was still interested. I said that first I would like to read his book again, his first book "Dianetics" which I had read a long time ago. She suggested another book and gave me a free DVD. She asked me if I had any further questions. I said: "Yes. Can I take your picture?" She immediately jumped up and said "No!". I nodded and asked: "How come?" She said: "What is it for?" I said: "I make art with the pictures I take. I might write something and I would use the picture with it." "She hesitated for a moment and blushed and looked around. Once again, this was not in the script. "I don’t come out good in pictures. I just don’t look good in them. " I shrugged my shoulders. "I think you would look fine." She thought about it some more and then shook her head once more. I shook her hand and slowly walked out the door.
As the cool wind hit my face and the now full blazing sun warmed my skin, I held my thoughts and let the full wave of impressions make its way through me like a full delicious meal that hasn’t been digested yet. All the many girls I had just met inside the building probably had felt something very real upon encountering the church. This thing that they had felt was true and living. Then they had become enmeshed in the layers of protection, in the power structure that held a vast organization together and the glimmer of truth had become ossified, only accessible once again at the moment of converting another. I felt a sincere sympathy for them. Like many others, known and unknown, far away and very near, they were beyond my reach. The organization that stood behind them had the weight of a giant monster and I was just a little clueless musician taking pictures of doors and hallways and lampposts. The only effort I could fulfill for them was to take them in fully, to breathe in their presence and allow their full manifestation to wash through me like cool water. In return for being seen as a "potential convert" I would see them as true individuals, as full people whose spirit had entered the labyrinth of a vast complex church, not unlike the other people around me who had entered a vast corporation, or a military institution or a little school. In opening myself to their full reality, I was touched by the little blonde’s wide innocent eyes and the brunette’s blush when I asked to take her picture. I felt then a clear resonance with the young L. Ron Hubbard, wearing a sailor cap and posing against the railing of a ship against the background of an African jungle. He had lived fully and strong and furiously and had scratched desperately for wakefulness and presence much more than most ever would. If these people chose to make him into a God, then so be it. There were much worse things to do. As for me, I would continue to swim through the layers of vagueness, of lies, of slurred facts and half stated conclusions. In the distance there was truth, and it sometimes became visible through the mist.

The inner church meeting space.

L. Ron Hubbard through the many colored layers.

The second mysterious symbol in the walls outside.